On a fervidly hot day in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, we found ourselves wandering through Ban Jelačić Square. Other than the odd space-age looking tram that zoomed past, it was eerily quiet. Only three weeks beforehand, this main square had been a tempestuous sea of red, white and blue. Fans gathered in anticipation as the World Cup final between France and Croatia was shown on large screens.
Despite losing 4-2 in Moscow, the Croats were rightly proud of their nation’s achievements. They had seen off the likes of Iceland, Argentina and England on their way to the final in Moscow. Down Zagreb’s cobbled streets, market stalls were still enjoying a roaring trade in fake replica shirts with heroic names such as Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić on the back.
One pub down Ulica Ivana Tkalčića displayed a large World Cup wall chart, painted on to the side of the building. It recorded every result from the competition. The large number of flags that had been put up still fluttered in the gentle breeze. While these were all remnants of a previous party, it still served as a painful reminder to Joe and I of the short lived euphoria that we felt when Kieran Trippier had put England ahead in that semi-final.
Sitting rather inconspicuously on the corner, in amongst restaurants and coffee shops (they love coffee in Zagreb) was Budi Ponosan, which roughly translates to ‘Be Proud’. Photographs of the national team stretched across the large windows. We weren’t sure whether we were allowed to wander in but we had nothing else to do, so took a closer look. Inside was a lineup of various players, made out of cardboard. You could poke your head through a hole on the left hand side and I duly lined up next to former Juventus striker Mario Mandžukić.
The place turned out to be a small museum dedicated to Croatian football and was operated by the nation’s Football Federation. It documented their history since being represented as an independent nation since 1993. Lots of players we knew of featured, including one of my heroes, Ivan Klasnic. The former Bolton Wanderers striker had once encouraged me as I took part in the half-time challenge on the pitch at The Reebok Stadium.
We were playing against Blackpool as part of their entertaining season in the Premier League. The aim of the competition was to kick the ball through a small target that was dangling from the crossbar. Three attempts. Succeed and you’d win a signed, framed shirt of your choice. As I prepared to step up, Klasnic who was a substitute, shouted from behind me, “Come on big boy. You can do it!” Gretar Steinsson burst out laughing as he drank a cup of tea. I couldn’t concentrate as I was in bemusement and subsequently didn’t win the prize.
As we left the museum, a woman, who looked extremely bored, sat behind a desk and thanked us for visiting. Joe reckoned she was, “Stealing a living,” like a lot of people who we met on our journey across Europe had appeared to be doing.
This two week adventure that we were on started in Vienna and ended in Budapest. It was a whirlwind tour that quickly took us through six countries; Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Hungary. It was booked months in advance and while football was never the priority of the trip, we waited in anticipation to see if we had fallen lucky with fixtures.
On occasions we were lucky, on others we narrowly missed out. An example of this was in Slovenia when we found ourselves travelling through Maribor on the day they were hosting Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere in the Europa League. Our itinerary had no flexibility to it and we had to press on through to the capital Ljubljana, where we watched the match in a pub on our own.
Fortunately, on our four days in Croatia we managed to get to matches at arguably the two biggest clubs in the country. On this Friday night we headed over to east side of the capital to watch Dinamo Zagreb beat Istra 1961. The following night we would be at Hajduk Split as they took on Lokomotiva Zagreb.
As evening time arrived, we caught the tram over to the Maksimir Stadium from the main square. It took about 15 minutes to get there. At one point we were joined by a group of 20 teenage lads, all dressed in black who jumped into our carriage. It would set the tone for the night. Not many fans turned up for the match but those that did had a menacing edge to them. It wasn’t an occasion to be speaking in English very loudly.
I had read the brilliant book Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe on the train from Ljubljana the day before. Author, Jonathan Wilson, delves into the politics and attitudes of clubs in various countries throughout the continent. Our visit to Dinamo Zagreb would be the first time on our tour that we would see connections to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s.
In his book, Wilson explains that outside the Maksimir is a statue of soldiers accompanied with the inscription, ‘To the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on 13th May 1990.” When Dinamo Zagreb hosted Red Star Belgrade, tensions between Croatia and Serbia were already at boiling point, with the election of nationalist Franjo Tuđman as Croatian President two weeks prior to the match.
The new president used the šahovnica, the red-and-white chequerboard emblem that had been a symbol of the Ustaše. They were a group of Croatian fascists who collaborated with the Nazi’s and slaughtered hundreds of Serbs during World War II.
Over 3,000 Delije (fans of Red Star) made the journey over to Zagreb for the match. The Bad Blue Boys (BBB) were involved in a number of street fights with their Serbian rivals in the hours leading up to the match. It still went ahead but large scale rioting took over, with fans of both sides fighting on the pitch. Over 60 fans were injured, with some being stabbed, shot or poisoned by tear gas. Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban was later suspended from football for six months for kicking a policeman. He was seen as a hero in Croatia.
The Yugoslav League continued until the end of the season, when Croatian and Slovenian teams withdrew. It marked the end for the competition. For many fans of Dinamo and Red Star, it also marked the start of a series of wars which would last for ten years.
As we queued up at the ticket office on the huge car park, it was obvious that tonight’s game was going to be staged in front of a sparse crowd. The BBB had organised a boycott of the match.
For the past few years, the vast majority of Dinamo fans had refused to attend home matches due to the way the club had been run by previous owner Zdravko Mamić. Miraculously, it always appeared to be a sell out when a Champions League tie was staged. A very two faced boycott.
Two months before our visit, Mamić had been sentenced to six and a half years in jail for transfer fraud relating to the sales of Luka Modrić and Dejan Lovren. It is claimed he was able to extract around $17 million from the club through these lucrative deals. Despite being sentenced, he fled over the border to Bosnia & Herzegovina and evaded arrest.
It appears the Dinamo fans like to find any excuse to not turn up to most matches. I’ve read elsewhere that in matches where they’d already won the league nobody could be bothered going as they didn’t mean anything. While one of their most recent protests was against the league for organising a match on Good Friday. “It is a shame that the league officials see nothing controversial about playing games on the anniversary of Jesus Christ’s death and thus we will not participate.”
The attendance for this match against league strugglers Istra 1961, from the city of Pula, was just 2,710. I couldn’t find what their reason for not turning up this time was. The whole evening had the feeling of an opening training session to it, as the shouts of the players reverberated around the cavernous stadium.
Bought from the small office, found in the corner of a huge car park our tickets cost just 30 kuna each. This was the equivalent of £3.50. You couldn’t even watch some awful 11th division English sides for that price but here we were watching the champions of a nation that had just reached the World Cup final for the cost of a pint.
Miraculously, cheaper tickets were available in other parts of the stadium. The woman who served us was extremely keen to stress to us that we could save money by sitting elsewhere. We stuck with our original choice of going in the boring West Stand to keep our heads down. She couldn’t quite understand why we were ‘splashing out’ more than we needed to.
The stadium had a clinical design to it. It was huge and brash. Built on concrete stilts, covered in large glass panels and completed with sharp right angled panels. If you walked past this construction in a British city, you would assume it was a call centre.
After a brief visit to the Fan Shop, which was no larger than my bedroom, we headed underneath the West Stand. There was a single beer tent which kept us and a few other English tourists, who were also keeping their heads down, refreshed with beer through the evening. Dinamo fans didn’t buy much from here either.
Mario Gavranovic scored for the hosts after 12 minutes before Marin Leovac doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time. Within moments of the second half starting, the match was over as a contest when Gavranovic grabbed another to make it 3-0 and that’s how it ended.
During the match, all I could picture was a scene that occurred to our right hand side years earlier. In October 2006, England lost 2-0 here in a qualifying match. Under pressure, Gary Neville passed the ball back to goalkeeper Paul Robinson, who swung his leg to clear it. As he did so, it bobbled on the uneven surface and ended up rolling into the net. The own goal just about summed up Steve McClaren’s tenure in charge of the Three Lions. It sticks in my head even when I met Paul Robinson years later. Fortunately for him, the incident is often overshadowed by events in the reverse fixture a year later, where in the rain, Croatia won 3-2 at Wembley to bring an end to McClaren’s time in charge.
Football had played just a small role in our visit to Zagreb, a city which you could wander around for hours having a drink and exploring. We particularly enjoyed our time at the Museum of Broken Relationships, which describes itself as “an unavoidable sight in your exploration of Zagreb and a unique emotional journey around the world through hundreds of break-ups.”
In this building, which proved to be very popular, were a variety of objects which had been submitted. They were all accompanied with explanations as to how the items had reminded the previous owners of their ex-partner. One of our personal favourites was a Bob Dylan book, which had been sent in from Sleaford in Lincolnshire. The thought provoking description read, “I didn’t know that my ex would hound my parents years and he would eventually have a sex change and steal their name for his new persona.” In the glass case opposite was a copy of Football Manager 2006, which resonated with me.
Outside, through the open windows we could hear a traditional Croatian wedding taking place in the church opposite. Perhaps one day the happy couple would send their cherished belongings to the museum? I also wondered how many Dinamo Zagreb season tickets had been given to the museum over the years, not that their owners would probably notice, citing a boycott as their reason.
In the heat of the afternoon, we made our way up the hill past the wedding. Guests were dressed up in full traditional regalia. It looked like a scene from Downtown Abbey. We felt like we were gate crashing, watching as we stood there in shorts and flip flops. To our right was St. Mark’s Church, with it’s distinctive tiled roof, and neighbouring government buildings.
We had seen most of what Zagreb had to offer, so spent the remainder of our time on a bar crawl down the cobbled Ulica Ivana Tkalčića, which housed lots of pubs and restaurants.
As we sat sunbathing outside Oliver Twist Bar, I asked Joe whether Oliver Twist had perhaps once visited here and the pub had been named in honour of this momentous occasion. A bit like Wetherspoons tend to back home. He broke the news to me that he was a fictitious character. We carried on enjoying large glasses of Ožujsko. Next stop was the beautiful, coastal city of Split.
Dinamo Zagreb sealed a 12th league title in 13 seasons, finishing 25 points ahead of second placed Rijeka. Istra 1961 finished second bottom but survived the drop after beating second tier Šibenik in a relegation play-off.